The Clinton Tapes

Bill Clinton reveals much in 79 taped conversations with historian Taylor Branch.

The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President By Taylor Branch Simon & Schuster 720 pp., $35

While president of the United States, Bill Clinton met 79 times with Taylor Branch, a journalist with a penchant for recent American history (as verified by his remarkable three-volume account of the civil rights movement that placed Martin Luther King Jr. at the center.)Only a few people knew that during the 79 sessions, Clinton made audio recordings of almost everything that was said. Branch wrote notes in longhand and later, as he drove home from the White House, spoke aloud everything he could remember into a tape recorder. Clinton used his own recordings while constructing his post-White House memoir, and will apparently allow public access to the recordings next year. Branch relied on his longhand notes and the recordings he made to piece together The Clinton Tapes, a mélange for policy wonks and gossipmongers alike.

Every page of the 700-plus pages contains gems for readers who care about Clinton’s domestic policy initiatives, negotiations with other heads of state, characterizations of famous men and women, the Bill-Hillary marriage, the president’s sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky, and much, much more.

Despite the compelling material, reading the book constitutes work. The text is not organized by topic, but rather chronologically from Meeting 1 through Meeting 79. The accounts of each meeting mix various topics, so that after digesting a paragraph about complicated Middle East negotiations involving Israel and Syria, readers must jump to a partisan Republican Party attack on Clinton, and then to a detail about the homework of daughter Chelsea..

This is not meant as a criticism so much as a heads-up for readers who decide to dive into this book.

Branch seems like a trustworthy guide not only to Clinton’s actual words, but also to his emotions as he spoke those words. Most of Branch’s editorial comments are respectful of Clinton. But Branch is not afraid to occasionally tell readers that, at a certain moment, Clinton seemed overly tired or a captive of wishful thinking or downright deluded.
Branch was not a blank slate when the sessions began. He and Clinton had become friendly in 1972, and even roomed together for a time, while seeking votes in Texas for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. Although Branch and Clinton had not seen each other for 20 years when the White House taping began, they retained a bond that could fairly be termed friendship.

Careful not to oversell the book, Branch says it “sits somewhere between politics, journalism and history.... I did not try to evaluate Clinton’s version of complex events, and this first-person presentation makes me a participant in a memoir ... gathering testimony from one central actor in American politics.” Clinton’s accounts, Branch adds, “are revealing but not conclusive. If they jar perceptions of Clinton or his presidency, healthy debate among citizens can repair mistakes and dispel even durable myths.”

What are the most “interesting” revelations, or the most “surprising” stories? The answers depend on the knowledge base, preconceptions, and partisanship quotient of each reader. The best I can do as a reviewer is to share a few examples that are sticking with me after seven days spent consuming Branch’s prose:

  • Clinton, often a master practitioner of electoral politics, is able to admire the tactics of George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich, his virulent enemies, when they score points at his expense. As Branch observes, Clinton “never begrudged survival or ambition in politicians, whether friend or foe.... He loved politics so much that he could speak almost fondly of his own defeats, seemingly because he had a prime seat to examine them in retrospect.” Simultaneously, Clinton views many, probably most, of the Republicans mentioned in the book as cynical opportunists who care about the wealthy rather than the overall national welfare.
  • Terribly unbalanced individuals sometimes wield power. Some of Clinton’s accounts of drunken behavior by Russian leader Boris Yeltsin make the US president’s sexual liaison seem almost benign by comparison. Other world leaders are better behaved in public, but some are so doctrinaire that negotiating with them seems like wasted time. The book is crammed with examples of Clinton’s negotiations concerning Haiti, Croatia, Korea, Iraq, Israel, and other global hot spots that will likely depress any reader who worries about killing wars, including those of the genocidal kind.
  •  It’s a truism that political leaders are human and should be neither completely deified nor demonized. The human element comes through unforgettably as Branch hears about Clinton’s concerns regarding his wife, his daughter, and numerous friends. Branch says Clinton mentioned his affair with Monica Lewinsky a few times, usually in a defensive tone. Once, however, he says, the president spoke with real emotion, explaining that at the time he began his relationship with her he was feeling vulnerable and under attack – and that as a result he had let his guard down.
  • Occasionally, Branch is even witness to Clinton’s personal interactions. I found it especially revealing, and touching, that Clinton sometimes placed politics and even honest-to-goodness international diplomacy on the back burner so that he could help Chelsea with her schoolwork and treat her as a loved daughter.

Steve Weinberg’s most recent biography is “Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.”

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